Secret Las Vegas: Where the locals go to party
It's early evening in Las Vegas, and I'm standing on a quiet street lined with unremarkable single-storey buildings.
It's been an extraordinarily hot day, so there's little activity as yet along the sidewalks of Fremont Street East, in Vegas' often overlooked downtown area.
Later, I've been invited to a party further south on The Strip, which will prove to be an insanely over-the-top event at an enormous pool within a lavishly decorated casino, including go-go dancers writhing around poles. Well, that's Vegas.
Or is it?
The west end of Fremont Street does share the dazzle of The Strip, housing some of the city's oldest casinos beneath a zipline and a canopy of night-time illuminations.
A short walk away, however, Fremont East is where the locals come to drink.
Though there's some vintage neon signs in the centre of the street, it's a human-scale strip lined with bars in former shopfronts.
A staff member at my hotel recommended one of his favourite bars here, the oddly-named Insert Coins. Spotting its suggestive logo combining an old-school video game joystick, a cocktail glass and a record player, I head for its entrance. Then a bouncer asks for proof of age. Carded! Hasn't happened in decades. Thank you Vegas!
Once I'm inside, I can see why the bar is so cautious about checking patrons' legality. A dark, cavernous space, its walls are lined by dozens of upright arcade games which might prove a great temptation for under-age customers.
The barman, Joe, tells me the clientele ranges from young adults who've never played an arcade game before, to those nostalgic for discordant electronic jingles and dodgy animation. Nearly all the illumination in the place comes from screens, though the long bar glows an electric blue.
In addition to playing arcade classics such as Pac-Man, Galaga and Tron, you can sit at the bar and play the latest games via suspended screens while you drink.
It's a great idea, and you don't even have to drink if you just want to play a few rounds of Galaga (my childhood nemesis).
Two quarters inserted, with Dogfish 60 Minute IPA beer in hand, I do just that.
Insert Coins, 512 Fremont St, Las Vegas. Tel: +1 702 477 2525, insertcoinslv.com.
Space warfare concluded, I cross the street to The Griffin, drawn by its attractive neon signage featuring a lime-green mythological beast holding a martini glass.
Inside, it's a classic bar with arched brickwork, scuffed floorboards, and curving banquettes arranged around gas fires burning within metal cages.
If you like bourbon, this is clearly the place to come - there are 43 varieties on the menu.
There's also a long list of draught beers, so I order a hoppy Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA ($7).
While I sip, I get talking to bartender Natalie. Early in the evening The Griffin is a mellow haven of post-work drinkers, she says, but by 9pm it's rocking. It looks like a good place to let off steam.
The Griffin, 511 Fremont St, Las Vegas. Tel: +1 702 382 0577, facebook.com/TheLasVegasGriffin
A dodge back across the street brings me to Park, one of Fremont East's newest bars, with enough space for a beer garden with a kitsch picket fence.
The interior is retro-glam. A vintage wallpaper pattern marches across walls and ceiling, and behind the bar are cases of stuffed birds hanging above the bottles.
It's a seriously cool place, full of happy groups eating and drinking.
Unlike the previous bars it has a full food menu, ranging from the Cali Mex Burger to the slightly weird Fried Chicken and Waffle Sandwich (each $10).
I've now had two beers on an empty stomach on a hot day, so I order hopefully alcohol-soaking carbs in the form of the Philly Mac and Cheese Steak ($11). It's thinly sliced grilled sirloin with capsicum and onion in a roll, topped by - of all things - mac 'n' cheese. Viva Las Vegas and its love of living dangerously.
After the meal, barman Trevin suggests I check out Park's rear garden. It's a big beautiful space with garden furniture and fairy lights strung through trees.
Beyond a small gap in the far wall is a hidden nook decorated with statues, a subtle but attractive smoking area.
Park, 506 Fremont St, Las Vegas. Tel: +1 702 834 3160, parkonfremont.com.
For my final bar I follow Trevin's directions to the nearby Downtown Cocktail Room, an elegant dimly-lit establishment.
The menu here is big on "craft cocktails" created by the staff, ranked from one to five depending on the complexity of flavour.
While barman Jeff Grindley mixes me an Ol' Chap comprising Amaro liqueur, Gentiane liqueur, saffron and chamomile ($10, rated 4), we discuss the attraction of Fremont East.
"Vegas is a very divided city, The Strip cuts everything in half," he says. "So this is becoming a central point for locals, where it's not The Strip and it's not Strip pricing. It's more down to earth, relaxed."
Grindley is enthusiastic about the neighbourhood's emphasis on quality over glitz when it comes to serving drinks.
"There's nothing wrong with a bar that just serves shots and beer, but Las Vegas cocktail culture was lagging far behind a lot of cities who'd embraced fresh ingredients and classic cocktails. I feel like we set an example for how a bar should care about its drinks."
I'm certainly not complaining about the Ol' Chap. A ruby red drink served in a Marie Antoinette glass, it's smooth but with a robust, earthy edge. Not unlike Fremont East.
Downtown Cocktail Room, 111 Las Vegas Blvd South, Las Vegas. Tel: +1 702 880 3696, thedowntownlv.com.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Fiji Airways and Visit USA.
Getting there Fiji Airways (1800 230150, fijiairways.com) and partners connect to Las Vegas.
Staying there Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, 1 Fremont St, +1 702 385 1906, goldengatecasino.com. From US$69 (NZ$79) per night.
Tropicana Las Vegas, 3801 Las Vegas Blvd South, +1 702 739 2222, troplv.com. From US$110 per night.
More information fremonteast.com